Brahms and his ‘nebulous garb of rhapsodies’ … Op 79

Elisabeth von HerzogenbergIf you’re looking for a Big Romantic Piece for a post-grade 8 level pianist, look no further. Brahms’  Rhapsody Op 79 No 2 has it all: a sweeping , dramatic opening, a beguiling, pleading second subject and a mysterious repeated triplet figure beneath which octaves tread stealthily, creating an atmosphere of suspense which builds to shattering climaxes. I’ve yet to find any teenager who didn’t love this piece and revel in its challenges.

Written in 1879 and dedicated to Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, above left, who had been a pupil of Brahms, the piece is marked Molto passionato ma non troppo allegro, and opens with a distinctive technical feature where the LH crosses the RH to play notes in the melody, thus cleverly avoiding unevenness in the accompaniment.

Technically there are large chords and octave leaps, so hand-span is a consideration. Good independence of the fingers will also be needed.  It needs a bold approach, tempered by an appreciation of the mysterious, especially in those ppp passages where the music almost stands still in some sort of harmonic limbo, in spite of the ever-present, murmuring triplets.

Brahms’ musical fingerprints are all over the score, both by virtue of the texture and the harmonic language. Note also the typical, written-out rallentando as the note values gradually lengthen towards the end of the piece before the two final, defiant chords.

Brahms and Elisabeth corresponded most engagingly  about this rhapsody and its companion, Op 79 no 1 in B minor. Elisabeth wrote on February 4, 1880: ….‘But the fact that the G minor is my favourite does not make me insusceptible to the rugged beauty of the B minor with its very sweet trio. The way the trio theme is indicated beforehand  is quite wonderful. Indeed, the whole of this episode, with the right-hand triplets and the expressive basses, is another case where words are inadequate. One is so glad that the piece closes with that too, leaving the most impressive part uppermost in the mind…’ 

She goes on to write of  the pain of a sleepless night, then continues:

‘…. But at sight of the two much-admired pieces I forgot all my grief and pain, and greeted them like old friends. It is hard to believe that there ever was a time when I did not know them, so quickly does the barely acquired treasure become incorporated with the accumulation of long standing. Once known and loved, it is a possession for all time. And, indeed, these pieces seem to me beautiful beyond measure — more and more beautiful as I come to know their bends and turnings, their exquisite ebb and flow, which affects me so extraordinarily, especially in the G minor…’

Brahms subsequently wrote to say that he wished to dedicate the pieces to her. She replied on May 3rd, 1880:

My dear Friend, – what a charming surprise! For, in spite of your breathing from time to time of a kind intention to dedicate something to me, I never quite believed in it… and now you put me to shame by giving me just these two glorious pieces for my own. I need not dwell upon my great delight over the dedication. You know whether I love these pieces or not, and you know whether I am bound to be delighted or not at seeing my name flaunt itself on a production of your brain. So let me say simply thank you, though with all my heart. Elisabeth von Herzogenberg_2As to your inquiry, you know I am always most partial to the non-committal word ‘Klavierstücke’ just because it is non-committal; but probably that won’t do, in which case the name Rhapsodien is the best, I expect, although the clearly-defined form of both pieces seems somewhat at variance with one’s conception of a rhapsody.
But it is practically a characteristic of these various designations that they have lost their true characteristics through application, so that they can be used for this or that at will, without many qualms…
Welcome, then, ye (to me) nameless ones, in your nebulous garb of rhapsodies!’

Welcome indeed.

The full text of the Brahms-Herzogenberg correspondence can be found here.



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Schubert – edited by Brahms. Drei Klavierstucke D946, No 2

Franz_Schubert_c1827It was one of those moments. One of those moments when you hear music for which you would climb down a ladder; one of those moments when you are driving and you hear something on the radio which keeps you in the car, listening, long after you have arrived at your destination.

The piece was the second of Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke D946.  Written in 1828, the pieces were not published until 1868 – and edited by Brahms. So yet another link for The Lunch That Never Happened.

Each of the pieces is characterful and full of interest, but it is the second of the three which caught my ear. and necessitated a quick call to Forwards to get a copy.

In the warm key of E flat major, the piece opens simply and quietly, and sublimely, with one of Schubert’s lovely melodies, accompanied by a flowing LH. It expands and blossoms, as if sung as a duet by two sopranos, while the LH bass reaches for lower notes, extending the range of the musical landscape.

One of the arresting features of the piece is the contrast given by two new, different sections, giving a Rondo form: ABACA.

The ‘B’ section modulates to C minor, and above a menacing LH tremolando figure, the RH mutters darkly in double thirds. Loud chords in a cross-rhythm end the phrases emphatically, and there are sinister key changes. The LH takes the melody while the RH continues the accompaniment – rotary movement needed here, by the way – and the music builds to a climax, then subsides to a murmur, now in C major with touches of anxiety as the foreign-to-the-key A flat sometimes interjects. Give a little ease to the tempo during the modulatory turn of phrase at the end of the section, ushering in the return to the first theme, theme ‘A’.

The ‘C’ section is different again, at first in a disquieting A flat minor with a change of metre away from a swaying compound duple to a more cut and dried simple duple, with two minims per bar. The repeated quaver chords which now appear as part of the theme and accompaniment need to be played neatly.

Into B minor for a more martial flavour  – how ever did we get into that key – then back into A flat minor, and finally to the blessed relief of E flat major for the final ‘A’ section. Play it lovingly.

Here is Brendel:

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Summer School for Pianists 2015 – what a week!

steinway_bendingI’m sitting in my Suffolk kitchen, watching the rain fall gently on the tomatoes in our vegetable plot, lost for words as I try to begin a blogpost about this year’s Summer School for Pianists, which ended yesterday.

We’ve just had a fantastic week of music, friendship, new discoveries, old favourites, hard work, laughter and fun, all around the theme of  ‘Dance’. There were 18 hours of masterclasses, guaranteeing each delegate 3 half-hour slots. Three student concerts showcased our course members’ skills as pianists and their ingenuity in repertoire choice – a Milonga by Piazzola and a  Szymanowski Mazurka spring to mind – and the tutors presented four topics as ‘Piano Matters‘ –The Metronome – Friend or Foe? A User’s Guide to Ornamentation,  A Passion for Liszt, and Perspectives on 20th Century Piano Music. 

Baroque dance expert Ruth Waterman showed us the steps of dances from Baroque suites. Anyone for a Minuet?!

Bach Minuet manuscript

The tutors’ solo piano recitals featured music from Couperin to Sorabji – by way of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Liszt, Schumann, Scriabin, Debussy and Busoni – and lieder by Schubert, Bruch and Ravel, preceded by Aperitifsshort talks giving ‘tasting notes’ for the music to be performed. Liquid Aperitifs were on sale in the bar too, before and after.  Our joint concert –  Piano Now! – included music by  Dai Fujikura and Richard Nye, as well as pieces by Sculthorpe, John Ogden, John Adams and Anne Boyd.

George_Goodwin_Kilburne_Enoch_ArdenA stunning late-night performance of Richard Strauss’ melodrama, Enoch Arden, with poetry by Alfred Lord Tennyson,  moved some of us to tears, while Richard Nye’s imaginative piece, This Marvellous Machine, had the audience laughing out loud. The accompaniment class was full, and the duet masterclass  was so popular that it needed extra time.

And people went swimming in the pool, tried the gym, disappeared to explore further afield on our free afternoon period mid-week, sang in the choir, took advantage of the many practice pianos at The Performance Hub , booked private lessons, and enjoyed many lively conversations over meals and during the coffee and tea breaks. The final evening saw us celebrating with a Gala Dinner.

Next year’s dates have been announced – 13th -19th August 2016 – and next year’s theme –‘Song’. As an optional suggestion, course members are invited to explore the many piano works influenced by song: Songs without Words, song transcriptions, Song of the Mad Woman on the Seashore, Chants, Solveig’s Song, Song of the Nightingale, Irish Tune from County Derry, folksongs, Oiseaux Exotiques, Gershwin transcriptions, Variations on Ah ! vous dirai-je maman ... the possibilities are endless. 

We hope to see you there at The  Performance Hub on the University of Wolverhampton’s Walsall campus.  Deposits are being taken now and classes are already filling up – contact for details and watch this space – for further information.

Now, since I don’t have to water the tomatoes, I’m off to the piano to look out next year’s repertoire …

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Falling in Love with Beethoven. And Falling into the Pond … Beethoven Variations

Beethoven -1804 -Joseph Mähler I fell in love with Beethoven at the age of ten. I can remember saying to one of the inspirational academic music teachers at my school, ‘Who is your favourite composer? Mine’s Beethoven.’ Hers was Bach. It was all because of a set of Six Variations on the Theme ‘Nel cor più non mi sento’ given to me to learn by my piano teacher at that time, Gordon McKeown. It’s such a good piece for a young person new to Beethoven; harder than a Sonatina, easier than a Sonata, with lots of variety as the theme is put through its paces. Flowing RH semiquavers, flowing LH semiquavers, leaping broken chords, a sad minor episode, teasing triplets, and a virtuoso final variation. Crossed hands! Octaves! What’s not to like?!

We were learning about perfect cadences in our music class at that time – and I told Ms Perkins that I couldn’t find a final cadence in the last variation. ‘The whole of the final  passage is a cadence,’ she said, and showed me how the Dominant and Tonic chords were broken up in the LH rather than played as block chords. This opened my eyes and ears to music in a new way – and forged a link between theory exercises and Real Music.

Here is Wilhelm Kempff –

And then there was the Falling into the Pond Incident. Years later, my next teacher, Roy Shepherd, told me to learn Beethoven’s Thirty-Two Variations on a Theme in C Minor. I duly turned up to my lesson, and launched into the Theme.

‘Fell in! Fell in -like a duck into the Pond! ‘ announced Roy, grinning maliciously. And he pointed to bar 5. I had omitted the final RH F#, introduced as an accidental at the beginning of the bar. Oh dear. I wonder how many other pupils Roy had heard who had also fallen into that particular trap …


This work is a substantial piece; a wonderfully ingenious treatment of an uncompromising eight bars of harmonic severity. Some variations fall into groups – the first three variations, for example, explore arpeggios – and later there are two where energetic demisemiquavers accompany a stern melody in octaves. Further on there  is the gentle sunshine of  five variations in the major key, but the minor tonality returns for a series of virtuosic displays. Although each variation has its own individual character, the set of thirty-two should sound like a unit. The final variation is extended into an exciting coda-finale.

An excellent recital piece, well worth adding to one’s repertoire. Just don’t Fall into the Pond.

Here is Horowitz:

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The French Connection – revisited. Favourite piano pieces by Debussy…

debussy_marneIn 2012 I wrote a series of posts covering an A-Z of Debussy’s music on this blog, and, since he is one of this year’s featured composers in the current series – The Lunch That Never Happened – it seems a good time to revisit some of those posts.

There are many  archived under:
‘The French Connection – An a-Z of Debussy’s Music ‘ – everything from Arabesque to Zephyr, with some curiosities and rarities thrown in,  such as Khamma and the Fall of the House of Usher.

But here are links to just four, with some trailers from the posts themselves …

Clair de Lune 
17,217,253. That is the number of views which YouTube’s top-ranking video of Debussy’s Clair de Lune had when I started research for this post a few days ago. The views now number 17,259,512 – over 42,000 more. Successive generations of pianists have fallen under the piece’s spell since its publication in 1905. My grandmother and my mother learnt it. I learnt it. Now my pupils clamour to learn it, influenced by Twilight…
 Continue reading …

La Fille aux cheveux de lin -The Girl with the Flaxen Hair

Sur la luzerne en fleur assise, Madame Vasnier
Qui chante dès le frais matin ?
C’est la fille aux cheveux de lin,
La belle aux lèvres de cerise.

So begins the poem La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin  by Leconte de Lisle from which the title of Debussy’s famous piano Prélude is taken. The poem is one of four Chansons Ecossaises from the Poèmes antiques by de Lisle.

‘Scottish Songs’ – and indeed, La fille aux Cheveux de Lin was originally set as a song by a young Debussy in about 1882, and dedicated to Madame Vasnier whose portrait is above. She was not a ‘girl with the flaxen hair’, but a married, thirty-something redhead who was a fine singer, an inspiration and a muse to the young Debussy – and much, much more besides. He wrote a number of ecstatic love songs dedicated to her – I could go on, but I urge you to listen to this wonderful programme, Songs for Madame Vasnier, to hear the original La Fille aux cheveux de lin at about 02:36, and an account of  the Debussy/Vasnier relationship as well as the songs it inspired …. Continue reading… 

Dr Gradus ad Parnassum from the Children’s Corner Suite

Debussy's daughter -Claude-Emma

As a child, did you practise your scales and exercises on the piano with due care and attention?

Yes? Congratulations, well done.

No? You didn’t? You fiddled about, or let your fingers take you to distant tonal fields away from C major? Hmm … well, you are not alone. Debussy’s Dr Gradus ad Parnassum owes its name to that esteemed tome by Clementi : Gradus ad Parnassum, which is packed with useful studies for different technical demands. Debussy’s piece, although an excellent workout for the fingers, gives the impression of an executant who has good intentions, but who becomes bored with the status quo of C major; there are tangential by-roads to be explored, and new pianistic antics to try out. And why should the RH and LH be confined to treble or bass clef respectively… Continue reading…

[Above, Debussy’s daughter, Claude-Emma, nicknamed Chouchou, to whom the suite is dedicated.]

Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest –  What the West Wind has Seen

 Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest, to give the correct title to Debussy’s seventh prelude, is – terrifying. It is terrifying to play, and terrifying to witness. The score is even fairly terrifying to look at; it is covered with demi-semiquavers, bristling with accidentals and littered with leger lines, needing careful deciphering to work out just what is to be played when, and where…. Continue reading …

[Below, Debussy with Stravinsky, photographed by Satie!]

Debussy and Stravinsky, photographed by Satie


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The Incomparable Schubert : Sonata in A Minor D 784

Schubert.  How can I write about Schubert? How can anyone even begin to approach the sublime mystery which is Schubert? And where to start?

Let’s start with an image – Alfred Brendel at Schubert’s original grave – more about that in this previous post.

Brendel_schubert_grabAnd let’s continue with a quote from Brendel’s book, A Pianist’s A-Z .

… ‘Schubert may well be the most astonishing phenomenon in musical history. The richness of what he accomplished in a life of merely thirty-one years defies comparison.’ Yes, the incomparable Schubert.

I’m currently performing Sonata in A minor, D 784. It was composed in February 1823 – a grim time in Schubert’s life; he has been hospitalised for the disease which would lead eventually to his death. In three movements, the Sonata opens, Allegro giusto, in the bleak key 0f A minor, pianissimo, with a stark, skeletal melody in octaves, pared down to the bare bones of a musical outline, and with a sombre, inexorable rhythmic tread. It ends with a falling minor 3rd in a two-note slur, a motive which will become increasingly important as the movement progresses, forming the accompaniment as the melody above it grows and expands.The dynamic gradually increases, and jagged dotted rhythms introduce defiance and anger before a modulation to E major brings us to the second subject. Schubert brings beauty out of despair in a steadily paced but lyrical section, wonderfully contoured.

The development explores ideas already heard, then a new thread is found – using dotted rhythms, but in a dance-like manner. The darkness of the opening returns at the recapitulation, the second subject now is in A major, and a coda finally affirms A major as the closing key, the falling minor third motive now triumphantly transformed into a major third. Hope? Light?

The second movement, Andante, in F major, seems innocuous and charming, until a brief motive, sordini, intensifies and turns the musical direction from F major through a foreign landscape of keys, arriving at last in the dominant key of C major for a reprise of the opening melody beneath a halo of quiet triplets. Listen out for the surprise modulation near the end, before the music is finally allowed to come to rest in the opening key.

The third movement, Allegro vivace, is like quicksilver, the hands chasing each other in a relay of triplets tossed between them. A dance-like second idea brings grace and elegance before the two hands take off again with the triplets, interspersed with precipitous arpeggios in contrary motion. We hear the dance again, and a magical modulation, before quiet triplets propel us into a return of the opening material. Tension builds before a flurry of unexpected octaves brings the Sonata to an aggressive conclusion.

Here is Richter:


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A Mere Bagatelle – or two …

Beethoven_caricatures_Lyser (1)

 -something of little value or importance; a trifle

 -a thing regarded as too unimportant or easy to be worth much consideration

 -a short and light musical composition, typically for the piano.

This post is about two of Beethoven’s  compositions with the title Bagatelle, and I’ve had to resort to the dictionary for a definition of the word, or else this post would never have seen the light of day. It is a difficult musical genre to pigeon-hole; perhaps that is why composers use the title, as a rather imprecise descriptor without too many expectations or musical ‘baggage’ attached.

Bagatelles crop up in unexpected places; the name in a musical sense was first used by Couperin in a work for keyboard named ‘Les Bagatelles‘ from his Pieces de clavecin, Second Livre, 10eme Ordre, in 1717. Since then, there have been Bagatelles for piano by composers from Beethoven to Bartok; Liszt’s Bagatelle sans tonalité is one of his fascinating late works. Saint-Saens composed a suite of them; Russian composers Lyadov and Tcherepnin wrote examples as did Lennox Berkeley – his for two pianos. Howard Ferguson and Australian composer Carl Vine have each composed a set of five.

But it is Beethoven’s three sets of Bagatelles, Op 33, Op 119 and Op 126 with which most pianists are familiar. Some of the easier ones provide a way into Beethoven’s piano music for pianists not yet ready to tackle the sonatas or variations.

Onikolaus-johann-van-beethoven-1776-1848-beethovens-brother-1362501234-article-0ne of my favourite bagatelles is  No 3 from Op 126, the set dedicated to Beethoven’s brother, Nikolaus Johann, pictured right. The opus number tells us that it belongs to Beethoven’s ‘late’ period; the warm key of E flat major promises something rather special.

Here is Myra Hess:

This is a lovely piece; brief, but elegant and poised, profound in its simplicity. There is but one main melody which appears at first in different registers with varied accompaniments, and whose harmonic outline is then wreathed in  demisemiquavers high in the piano’s heavenly regions before gradually descending to earth. There is a magical pedal effect at the end where the sustaining pedal is not released, giving a gently lingering, harmonic haze.


You won’t find Beethoven’s most famous Bagatelle in any of the three published sets, although it may have been intended for one of them. It doesn’t even have an opus numbeLudwig Nohlr – rather it has a WoO number – Werke ohne Opuszahl 59. The manuscript is lost; the piece was only published long after Beethoven’s death, transcribed by the German writer, Beethoven_WoO_59_Erstausgabe (1)Ludwig Nohl, (right) who stated that the date on the manuscript was 27 April, 1810. There is considerable scholarly debate about the lady for whom it was written, with numerous theories put forward. It is, of course – ‘Für Elise’, which first appeared in 1867 in Nohl’s Neue Briefe Beethovens. The link to the first edition  is here.

Just play five notes of the opening RH motif  –
E D#E D#E – and the piece is instantly recognisable.

I’m always pleased if pupils ask to learn ‘Für Elise’; there is much to be gained from mastering the mellifluous flow of the semiquavers at the beginning – the bit that everyone knows…  After that come the technical challenges of the middle section, in F major, introducing a LH Alberti bass beneath  a singing melody, and some nifty RH passage-work in demisemiquavers. Later, some urgent, repeated LH notes add to the piece’s technical requirements, providing a good first introduction to changing fingers in such passages, while the chords above them are colourful and dramatic. There’s an extended RH arpeggio in A minor too, and a chromatic scale descent – all useful grist to the mill, and a chance to demonstrate the real-music application of scales and arpeggios!

Here is Brendel:

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